How to Stop Being So Judgmental

I can’t imagine I’m the only one out there who has a bad tendency to judge other people. It’s something I’d rather not be doing, but it’s a bad habit that I have a hard time putting behind me. There are areas where I make snap judgements about a person based on their actions. In some cases it’s justified, but in many (most?) cases it’s not.

That’s why a quote I read this week stood out to me so strongly. I’m reading Dare to Lead as part of a book group on campus. There are some aspects of it that I’ve found less than useful, but there are some really good ideas in parts of it that have stuck with me. For example Brene Brown, the author, talks about the different nuances of shame, guilt, and embarrassment. Embarrassment is typically momentary, and often a shared experience. We do or say something stupid, we feel bad about it, but we know and recognize many other people have done or said the same thing, and we move on.

With guilt, the thing we did or said (or didn’t do or didn’t say) is more significant. We feel genuine remorse for our action or inaction, and that remorse spurs us to improve in the future, so that we don’t feel guilty anymore. I’d always thought of guilt as a bad motivator. I’m not saying it’s the best motivator out there, but I’ve come around to believe it’s a good feeling to be capable of having, It makes us want to be better people, but it does that because we feel guilt for our actions, not for our character.

Shame, on the other hand, comes from feeling bad about who we are as a person. As Brown says, “the majority of shame researchers and clinicians agree that the difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the difference between ‘I am bad’ and ‘I did something bad.'” You feel guilt when you did something bad. You feel shame when you think you are bad. Shame leads to destructive behavior.

This sets the context for the specific quote I want to highlight:

Based on research, there are two ways to predict when we are going to judge: We judge in areas where we’re most susceptible to shame, and we judge people who are doing worse than we are in those areas.

The thought is so compact it almost sailed past me when I was reading it. I had to stop and read it again, then think about it for a while to understand what she was getting at.

Each of us is susceptible to shame in different areas. For example for me, weight has always been an area where I’ve felt shame. (Just keeping it real here, folks.) Other people might feel shame about their intelligence, their looks, their job, their temper, their relationships, and so on. Any area where society has caused us to believe we’re supposed to be X, but we know we’re actually Y. As Brown puts it, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, and connection.”

We are most likely to judge other people, then, in areas where we ourselves are most susceptible to shame. I might have a tendency to judge people because of their weight, because I personally feel shame about mine. And when we do judge in these areas, we judge those people who are doing worse than we are.

It made so much sense when it was outlined like that. We naturally try to defend ourselves in the areas we feel weakest, and one of the instinctive ways to do this is by diverting attention to people who are even weaker than we are in those areas. If we feel our relationship is bad, we judge people with even worse relationships. If we’re self conscious of our social status, we pick on people who are lower than we are.

Now that I’ve read that, I’ve tried to consciously catch myself whenever I start rushing to judgement. I turn the feeling inward instead of outward. Why am I judging in that case? What is it about myself that makes me want to feel superior in that area?

I’m not saying I’m perfect at this new approach by any means, but it’s been a significant mind shift for me, and I wanted to pass it on in case it might help you as well.

(Because you know I’m judging you because of how awfully judgmental you are . . . )


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